#75 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Adapted from a stage play that was adapted from a novel, Tobacco Road might be the broadest comedy I’ve ever seen. It feels like it shares the cast of the stage production with everyone playing to the rafters, but it shares none of that cast which was still on stage at the time of production. Beset by an air of controversy, the story was apparently sanded down to a nub of a point, leaving an extended series of broadly played comedic bits that make little to no effort to establish the emotional resonance of the intended catharsis demanded by the end.
In Depression era Georgia, Jeeter Jester (Charley Grapewin) lives on a rented plot of land that has fallen into extreme disuse, and the bank is coming to collect their $100 back due rent. So, he sets out to get it by conning the people around him into giving it to him. There’s Lov (Ward Bond) who married his youngest daughter, coming to his house to complain that the girl won’t take his physical and mental abuse, but he doesn’t have the money to offer Jeeter for his eldest daughter Ellie May (Gene Tierney) as a substitute. There’s Sister Bessie Rice (Marjorie Rambeau), a travelling and illiterate preacher woman who comes into some money after her husband dies. She refuses to give him anything and, instead, marries his son Dude (William Tracy) and buys a car, leaving nothing left.
Jeeter’s mind keeps grinding away as he tried to find new ways of getting the money so he can stay, so he convinces Bessie to take a pile of wood (that belongs to neither of them) in the car up to Augusta in order to sell. When no one buys anything, Jeeter steals the car after convincing Bessie and Dude to sell the spare tire and spend the night in the hotel. He offers the car, dirty and dinged up from a few days of misuse at the hands of Dude behind the wheel, to the first person he meets who happens to be the Chief of Police. Arrested, he’s released to Bessie and Dude who take him back to his home on the titular Tobacco Road.
All of this is done in the broadest way possible with every actor flailing limbs and screaming out every line (especially Tracy as Dude). It pretty becomes little more than noise, and it’s all centered around a lazy lay about who has let his farm fall into disrepair for decades and spends almost the whole movie trying to con people out of $100 for one more month on his farm.
And then the movie tries to get emotionally resonant, and it fails miserably. Jeeter becomes circumspect about his failings, offering up apologies to his wife and not really anyone else. He gives away his daughter to Lov after Lov’s wife absconds to Augusta, and he’s ready to move on to the poor house. However, he’s saved by a neighbor who pays for six month’s rent and gives him $10 to buy seed. Now Jeeter’s going to turn the farm around, and it’s told in the sappiest way possible.
I really thought Ford was beyond a film this bad, that his talent would elevate pretty much any material, but it seems as though he had no idea what he was doing here. This isn’t the first comedy he made, but they were definitely rare. This feels like he had never made one and expected the cast to simply overact their way to laughs. I don’t think it works at all, creating a cadre of unappealing characters who end up getting rewarded in the end despite it all.
I have a strong feeling that this was all because the controversial stage play and novel needed to get sanded down into something that the Hays Code board would pass. Anything in the originals that could offend was removed and replaced by broad comedy to help fill the runtime. It’s a guess since I’ve neither seen the play nor read the book, but it’s something I’d stand by.
This was dreary, but at least it was short. I suppose it could work for people who like the easiest of comedy and don’t demand much more than swelling music to create their catharsis, but for everyone else I couldn’t imagine enjoying this.